The two women on the shortlist include Indian-origin author Chetna Maroo and Canada’s Sarah Bernstein
The Booker Prize announced the six shortlisted novels for 2023 on Thursday (September 21). It features two Americans (Jonathan Escoffery and Paul Harding), two Irish (Paul Murray and Paul Lynch), one Canadian (Sarah Bernstein) and one British (Chetna Maroo); it’s for the first time in the last eight years that the list is dominated by men. “This year’s novels offer a full range of lived experience,” Esi Edugyan, novelist and chair of the judging panel, said while announcing the award. “The books refuse easy categorization. No one voice, no one vision dominates,” she added. Here is a look at this year’s finalists:
1. The Bee Sting by Paul Murray (Penguin): The 650-page epic fourth novel by Paul Murray (48) delves into the uproarious chaos of the Barnes family amid an impending doom. Dickie’s failing car business leads to an apocalypse-proof bunker project with a rogue handyman. Imelda turns to eBay to sell her jewelry, while Cass, a former top student, spirals into binge-drinking. Twelve-year-old PJ plans his escape. It reimagines family dynamics, offering a fresh perspective on life’s twists and turns. It has been hailed as a ‘tragicomic triumph’ (The Guardian) and ‘the finest novel yet’ (Sunday Independent). Some critics have claimed it is even better than Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Born in Dublin, Murray wrote his first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes (2003) — described by The New York Times as ‘a spirited howl against so-called progress,’ — while doing a creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia. His other novels, including Skippy Dies and The Mark and the Void, received critical acclaim.
2. This Other Eden by Paul Harding (Penguin): American musician (drummer of now-defunct Cold Water Flat) and author Paul Harding (55), who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, Tinkers (a meditation on love, loss, and the beauty of nature), tells a tragic tale of displacement, inspired by the real-life consequences of eugenics on Malaga Island, an isolated island off the coast of Maine, and one of the first racially integrated towns in the Northeast, which was home to an interracial fishing community, from roughly the Civil War era to 1912. Then came the intrusion of ‘civilization’. After government officials inspected the island in 1911, Malaga’s 47 residents, including children, were forcibly removed, some of them rehoused in institutions for the ‘feeble-minded.’ In 2010, the state of Maine offered an official ‘public apology’ for the incident. The Booker Prize jury was moved by the ‘delicate symphony of language, land and narrative that Harding brings to bear on the story of the islanders.’
3. If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery (HarperCollins): Jonathan Escoffery’s debut is the only collection of short fiction on the shortlist. The eight stories in If I Survive You revolve around a Jamaican-American family living in Miami, and striving for more. According to the author, the book questions the idea of a unified identity that remains consistent throughout a lifetime. Escoffery skilfully weaves heart and humour in If I Survive You, in which Trelawny, the protagonist, faces the daunting challenges of financial ruin, racism, and relentless misfortune. Following a tumultuous encounter with Topper, who grapples with his parental shortcomings and yearning for Jamaica, Trelawny embarks on a comical journey out of homelessness, tackling a series of peculiar jobs. Meanwhile, his brother Delano’s ill-conceived scheme to reclaim his children goes awry, and his cousin Cukie is on a quest to find a reluctant father. Amid their pursuits, each character grapples with the precariousness of climbing life’s ladder without a safety net.
4. Western Lane by Chetna Maroo (Pan Macmillan): Chetna Maroo’s Western Lane blends simplicity with richness, creating a narrative that tugs at the heartstrings. At its core, it is a coming-of-age story that revolves around eleven-year-old Gopi, who finds solace in the world of squash after the loss of her mother. Maroo skillfully captures the cadence of the sport - the serve, the volley, the drive, and the echoing shot - turning them into metaphors for life itself. But what truly sets this novel apart is its portrayal of the bonds formed on the squash court. Gopi's journey is intertwined with that of Ged, a young prodigy, and the novel beautifully explores the connections they forge. It’s also a celebration of sisterhood and self-discovery. A debut, it has been hailed for having a clear vision and for its ingenious use of the game of squash to depict Gopi’s grief and her attempts to process it.
5. Prophet Song by Paul Lynch (Penguin): Irish novelist Paul Lynch (46), known for his poetic, lyrical style and exploration of complex themes, writes a dystopia, with no paragraph breaks. He imagines an Ireland that has descended into illiberalism and tyranny. Eilish Stack, a scientist and mother-of-four Eilish Stack ‘finds herself caught within the nightmare logic of a collapsing society — assailed by unpredictable forces beyond her control and forced to do whatever it takes to keep her family together.’ Described by the jury as ‘exhilarating, propulsive and confrontational portrait of a society on the brink,’ Prophet Song is ‘a story of bloodshed and heartache that strikes at the core of the inhumanity of western politicians’ responses to the refugee crisis’ (The Guardian); it echoes the violence in different parts of the world, including Palestine, Ukraine and Syria, and bristles with the experience of all those who flee from war-torn countries. Lynch has been compared to writers like Cormac McCarthy and Anna Burn for the novel.
6. Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein (Penguin): Born in Canada, Bernstein was named to Granta’s list of Best Young British Novelists in 2023. Study for Obedience, her second novel, is an absurdist tale that deals with ideas of prejudice, power dynamics and how history shapes people. After a woman arrives in an unnamed town to run her eldest brother’s household after his marriage dissolves, there unearths deep undercurrents of xenophobia. The people of the nearby town, however, treat her with suspicion, even hostility — particularly after a series of unfortunate events coincide with her arrival. She is accused of wrongdoing, but in a language she cannot understand and so cannot address. And though she works hard silently for the community, still she feels their hostility growing, pressing at the edges of her brother’s property. Bernstein (36) lives in Scotland, where she teaches literature and creative writing. Her first novel, The Coming Bad Days, is a portrait of feminine vulnerability and cruelty.